CHAMPAIGN – The Stradivarius Marylebone cello, known as Mr. Cello to commercial airlines, has racked up 10,000 frequent-flyer miles. But Mr. Cello didn't need them Tuesday for his flight from Washington, D.C., to Champaign.
Mr. Cello – plus a decorated Stradivarius viola and two Strad violins – traveled to Willard Airport on a Falcon 2000 jet owned by Sheila Johnson, a 1970 alumna of the University of Illinois School of Music. The Axelrod Quartet of instruments, which belongs to the Smithsonian Institution, is on display through Dec. 3 at the Krannert Art Museum, marking the first time the set has been shown in the Midwest or at any university.
Members of the Smithsonian Chamber Players will play the precious and rare instruments in concerts on campus on Nov. 12 and 14. However, the famed instruments were overshadowed Tuesday by Sheila Johnson – the philanthropist and businesswoman, who appeared briefly at the museum and enjoys the distinction of being the first black female billionaire. That came as a result of the $3 billion sale to Viacom of Black Entertainment Television, which she co-founded.
She also is the first female to own three professional sports teams – the Washington Capitals, Mystics and Wizards. She owns Salamander Market, an upscale market for working chefs, and the Woodlands Resort & Inn, a five-star property near Charleston, S.C.. She is developing another luxury resort, the Salamander Resort & Spa, just outside Middleburg, where she has a home in addition to one in Arlington, Va.
At Krannert, Johnson said she was happy to have the ability and the opportunity to transport the Axelrod Quartet here from Washington, where they received a major media sendoff. Johnson, who majored in music education and performance at the UI, said she admires the Smithsonian Institution's dedication to education and the arts. "I thought it was a perfect marriage," she said.
As for the university, she said it kept her grounded.
"I'm still grounded," she said. "The UI teaches you to be humble. I love the phrase, 'Don't read your own press releases.' The university is large but it's tough. It keeps your nose to the grindstone. You really have to work at everything. I really appreciate everything that the school has done for me. There's a work ethic that you see here very specific to the Midwest and very different from the East Coast. That's part of who I am. I really believe in all the moral values the university taught me. You have so many good people here."
The daughter of Marie Crump and the late Dr. George Crump, a surgeon, Sheila Crump came to the UI from Maywood and Proviso East High School, where she was a school leader, a cheerleader and the concertmistress of not only the school orchestra but also the all-state orchestra, said her high school music teacher, Susan Starrett, a UI alumna who traveled here with Johnson and remains a mentor to her.
"She was very ambitious," Starrett said Tuesday. "She was a very hard worker. She just had great zest for life. She would stop at nothing. She wanted to be tops. The characteristics of genuine interest, energy, enthusiasm and compassion for fellow students and friends – all those were there at age 15 and have only refined and developed over the years to help her become the beautiful young lady she is today. She's every bit as genuine today as she was then."
At the UI, Johnson was the first female African-American cheerleader. She met her first husband here, Robert Johnson, a social studies major. After a short stay in Princeton, N.J., they moved to Washington, D.C., where Sheila Johnson taught music while helping UI Professor Paul Rolland edit and promote his string pedagogy books, which revamped the field of string education.
During her 18-year teaching career, Sheila Johnson, an accomplished violinist, performed herself and formed a string orchestra of 130 students, Young Strings in Action. Queen Noor of Jordan invited the ensemble to perform as part of the largest cultural festival in the Mideast.
Meanwhile, in the early '80s, during the infancy of cable television, Johnson and her then-husband realized there was a niche market for black entertainment. "We were very distressed that a lot of blacks were doing great things but you never heard about them," she said. "Robert was trying to get this started so we collaborated together to get it done. I still had to work. I signed the first bank note, and we just got it launched." Helping to bankroll the fledgling BET was John Malone, known then as the Darth Vader of the cable industry.
While continuing to teach, Sheila Johnson in her spare time worked at BET. After retiring from the classroom in 1989, she joined BET as executive vice president and started its "Teen Summit" program, which gave teenagers a chance to talk about crucial issues in their lives. She now advocates for children and women as an international ambassador for CARE and in many other capacities.
She has been a major donor to and sits on the boards of many schools and foundations, among them the Centers for Disease Control Foundation, the UI Foundation and the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts. She is now married to Arlington County Chief Circuit Judge William T. Newman. She has two children, Brett, a 17-year-old high school junior and football player, and Paige, a prize-winning equestrienne training for world-class competition.
American Music Month performances scheduled
Members of the Smithsonian Chamber Players will perform using the Axelrod Quartet of instruments during 'A Musical Serenade: Stradivari's Decorated String Quartet' at 1 p.m. Nov. 12 at the Krannert Art Museum, 500 E. Peabody Drive, C, and during 'An Evening with the Strads,' at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler and tenor John Elwes also will perform on Nov. 14. The Nov. 12 concert is free. Tickets for Nov. 14 are $34, $29 and $20.
Both concerts are part of American Music Month, arranged by former Smithsonian archivist Scott Schwartz, archivist and associate librarian in charge of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the UI. Look for a detailed story about American Music Month in Sunday's News-Gazette.